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First Cohort of NEW Leadership Virginia Wraps Up Weeklong Visits with Women Leaders

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While some college undergraduates enjoyed downtime during the summer break, 16 students from universities in Virginia skipped the beach and spent six days in June meeting business, social, and political leaders in and around Washington, D.C., with a focus on women’s leadership in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

Several young women smile at the camera as they pose around a blond woman in a black jacket sitting on a black leather chair.
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger is surrounded in her office by the NEW Leadership Virginia cohort. Photo by Xavier Jimenez/Schar School of Policy and Government
A man in a blue suit gestures as seated women listen.
U.S. Rep. Don Beyer makes a point during his meeting with the NEW Leadership students. Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, the NEW Leadership Virginia Faculty in Residence, is in green. Photo by Xavier Jimenez/Schar School of Policy and Government.

The weeklong residential summer program was the pilot edition of a program designed to engage students from Virginia colleges and universities with women in prominent leadership roles and allies as they shared their experiences and insights, learn about women’s participation in American policy, politics and public life, and develop and practice leadership skills. The program, the only one of its kind in Virginia, was hosted by the at Ƶ’s in partnership with the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).

The cohort included students from George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC), James Madison University, the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and Norfolk State University. Two participants were spring graduates while the remainder were undergraduates. Events took place from June 9 to 14.

Four women stand facing the camera.
The recipients of the ‘Women Who Mind the GAP’ Leadership Awards stand with Bonnie Stabile, second from left: From left, Doorways CEO Diana Ortiz, Director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center Naomi Barry-Perez, and President of the Consumer Technology Association Kinsey Fabrizio.

The program included an “action project” in which faculty and Schar School interns helped students research a public-facing issue, imitate a legislative hearing, and defend theirteam's position, with the idea being to develop public speaking and communication proficiencies, among other skills.

A highlight of the week took place on Thursday, June 13, when the program descended onCapitol Hill to speak to visit the offices of U.S. Reps. Jen Kiggans (R), Abigail Spanberger (D), Jennifer McClellan (D), and Don Beyer (D), who is also a George Ƶ student. While the students met in person with Spanberger, McClellan, and Beyer, they were hosted by Kiggans’ professional staff in her place.

For government and international politics major Ella Duncan-High, the week was exactly what she was hoping for. “I was looking for ways to specifically get involved and gain experience and training outside of the school year, so the summer was the perfect opportunity,” she said. “And I feel like I’m learning a lot even though I’m technically not in school right now.”

Duncan-High said her favorite part of the week was “the session where we get to role-play a press conference and judiciary hearing. I really am enjoying the hands-on experience of being able to work with not only the professors and the assistants who have real work experience with these scenarios, but also getting to work with people my age and similar interests.”

Zateya Jackson, a rising senior at VCU studying political science with a civil rights concentration, said highlights for her were meeting Congresswoman Jennifer McClellan “and my favorite speaker was Charniele Herring, the Virginia House Majority Leader and NEW Leadership Virginia Faculty in Residence, because of their backgrounds as Black women,” she said. “They encourage me to run for office and show that women of color can overcome adversity.” (Herring, who accompanied the students on their visits, is a 1993 George Mason alum in economics.)

A woman in a purple dress addresses several young women standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan meets the NEW Leadership members on the steps of the Capitol. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

“My favorite was Abigail Spanberger,” said NVCC second-year business management student Karen Blanco. "When talking about confidence, Spanbergeradvised, ‘Don't think about it twice, just say it, and don't worry about what others would say.’ Since English is my second language, I often debate if I should speak up, but never do. So that inspired me.”

The insights offered to the students applied to many fields, not just politics. GAP Director and Schar School professor , who accompanied the NEW Leadership students every step of the way for the week, made that point clear. “You don't have to be elected to office to exhibit leadership and make a difference,” she said. “Many industries need similar skills.”

That idea was on display during a dinner and networking event on June 12 featuring the three “Women Who Mind the GAP” Leadership awardees: U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center Director Naomi Barry-Perez; Doorways CEO Diana Ortiz; and Consumer Technology Association President Kinsey Fabrizio, a 2003 George Mason alumna in government and international politics and Spanish.

During the NEW Leadership program, students quickly used their new skills to pursue their political interests. Ayman Habib, a rising George Mason global affairs junior is the director of administration and logistics for No Lost Generation, a UNICEF-World Vision refugee advocacy organization. She thanked Beyer forsupportingVirginia refugees and invited the congressman to meet the three refugee students who will beon George Mason’s Fairfax Campus thisfallthrough the State Department’s Welcome Corps.

Several women stand behind very large letters spelling MASON.
NEW @ Mason: There’s no question about where the NEW Leadership Virginia program took place. Photo by Buzz McClain/Schar School of Policy and Government

“I wanted to gain clarity at the policy level for our cause and expand our outreach so refugees will have federal support,” she said following the meeting with Beyer. “How fantastic would caring congresspeople be for our students?”

At the end of the week, students shared their future plans, whether academic, personal or professional, and connected on all manner of social medias with the new people they met.

The 2025 edition of the New Leadership Program Virginia takes place in June and Samantha Mendoza-Hernandez, a political science and international studies major at VCU, encourages anyone with a similar ambition to polish resumés and professional skills to apply next year.

“I think it's definitely worth it,” she said. “The program has covered ground that a lot of professionals sometimes overlook and helps with foundations like networking, rhetoric, mannerisms in the workplace, and other details. And really helps with fine-tuning and confidence going into the workforce.”

The biggest takeaway from the week for the Schar School’s Duncan-High “has been meeting people from all different backgrounds,” she said. “Everyone here has very different interests, majoring in different things that aren’t just policy and government related, and everyone is here because they all hope to be a woman in leadership in the future.

“Being surrounded by women who have big aspirations in various fields is so inspiring and is an experience I wouldn't have been able to have otherwise.”

Additional reporting by Buzz McClain